The Lapsed Now And Then: What The Decian Persecution Teaches Us About Recovering From Covid

The Roman soldier handled Perpetua roughly. There was no question who was in charge. He took her before the Captain to be questioned and then to the Procurator. The procedure was simple. He asked her one question three times: “Are you a Christian?” If she denied being a Christian she would be made to prove her fidelity to the Roman religious establishment by swearing allegiance to Caesar as a god and by pouring out a drink offering. If, however, she answered incorrectly, i.e., were she to answer that she was indeed a Christian, then she would be threatened with punishment, exhorted to repent of her Christian profession and to affirm the Roman cultus. If she persisted, she would be convicted of impiety and taken to be put to death in the nearby circus where she would be attacked and killed by animals for the amusement of the public. Perpetua confessed Christ and refused to recant. She was beaten with rods and taken to the circus for execution of the sentence.

The Crisis Of Conscience

Christians in the first two centuries after the close of the apostolic age lived a perilous earthly existence. Mostly they kept to themselves. They were not out doing door-to-door evangelism. Indeed, the location and time of Christian worship services was typically a closely guarded secret. Services were held early on Sunday, in out of the way places. Those in the community who knew about their existence thought that the new religion might be some sort of death cult—there was supposed to be much interest among the Christians in the disgusting Roman spectacle of crucifixion and in tombs. Other rumors circulated that suggested that the Christians murdered infants and were cannibals. The most infuriating thing, however, about the Christians was that they stubbornly refused to affirm the established religion. The consensus was that the Christians were “haters of humanity.”

Among those who, like Perpetua, who confessed Christ unto death were given the title of martyr, i.e., witness. The were confessors, i.e., they confessed Christ (Matt 10:32). The status of the martyrs was not in doubt, though it would not be long before a cult would develop around the martyrs. There was a second group, however. They were called “the lapsed” (lapsi). Faced with public humiliation, torture, and a brutal death, some Christians “lapsed” as it was put. They fell. They did not confess Christ unto death. Indeed, under suspicion of being a Christian they were required publicly to renounce Christ, to swear allegiance to Caesar, and to seal their allegiance with a sacrifice.

Those who lapsed scandalized the church. Should they, after confessing their sin, be forgiven and be re-admitted to the church? This was not an easy question for the early church. Some concluded that it was the unforgivable sin. During the Decian persecution (c. AD 250), however, Cyprian, the senior of pastor of the church in Carthage, Cornelius, the senior pastor in Rome, and Dionysius, the senior pastor in Alexandria, ruled that lapsing was not the unforgivable sin. They re-admitted penitent lapsi. The Novatiationists, followers of a presbyter in Rome who had disputed Cornelius’ election, however, strongly disagreed with this decision and they caused a schism over it. Ultimately, the Novatianists were required by the Synod of Nicaea (AD 325) to submit to the church and some never did.

Novatian Again

The case of the lapsed (lapsi) is instructive for the post-Covid church. To be sure, the challenges faced by the church after Covid are not the same as those faced by the ancient church but there are certain parallels. There are those who have taken what we might call a quasi-Novatianist position toward those who submitted to the Covid regulations. It is not difficult to find rhetoric characterizing as compromisers (or worse) those congregations that suspended services (even briefly), met outside, who asked members to wear masks, or who otherwise cooperated with the Covid regime. Most pastors can tell stories about losing families over disagreements about how the church should respond to Covid. Some talk about those who cooperated in any way with the Covid regime (whether early, middle, or late) in the same terms that the Novatianists used for those who lapsed during the Decian persecution.

To state the obvious, it is one thing to deny Christ, to denounce him, and even to offer a sacrifice to an idol and quite another to adapt to or adopt public health measures suggested or imposed by secular authorities. To suggest that they are morally equivalent is to over-estimate what the secular authorities asked or demanded of the churches in America and to underestimate what was demanded of Christians during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

This analogy should in no way be construed as support for the entire Covid regime. What seemed plausible and reasonable early on now, in retrospect, seems ill-advised, unwarranted, and largely mistaken but virtually no one knew that at the beginning. Certainly few pastors, ruling elders, and ecclesiastical assemblies were equipped to make public health decisions about novel Coronavirus. Obviously a great many mistakes were made. It is now agreed that outdoors is the best place to be and secular authorities shut down outdoor spaces. In some places, secular authorities showed their secularist bias against organized religion generally by categorizing churches as non-essential but categorizing clearly non-essential commercial enterprises as essential. Too many authorities were found flouting their own rules for the general public to take them seriously after a while. It is not too much to say that, in the late summer of 2022, the mask and vaccine mandates are more political theatre and political punishment than public health measures. The United States, absurdly, remains in a “state of emergency,” for transparently political reasons. Our politicians have discovered that they enjoy the emergency authority granted to their office and they do not seem minded to give it up nor do the legislative branches seem willing to do anything about.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, what matters is less about who was right about the public health and public policy questions than the standard of orthodoxy that some are applying to the church. The confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess no position on public health policy. Reformed Christians may disagree or even change their mind about how churches may or should respond to the Covid regime. This is a matter of prudence not orthodoxy.

Some of us (mea culpa) were too willing to trust the authorities when they said that these would be temporary measures. We may be thankful that the courts have overturned some of the more onerous policies and there are some major decisions yet to come (e.g., a class-action suit by sailors against the United States Navy’s covid-vaccine mandate). For more on this see the resource page below on Covid and religious liberty. Both public health authorities and secular government authorities generally have burned a good deal of trust and good will during the Covid regime. Americans have a strict contract with the government: the Constitution of the United States. We had better learn its terms and insist that it be respected and obeyed. If it is not it will be no one’s fault but ours. In that respect the Covid regime has had a salutary effect. It has been a wake up call and reminder of how quickly natural liberties can be usurped.

Our relationship with the secular civil magistrate is a kind of covenant of works. The terms of the covenant are “do this and live.” As long as the state lives within the terms of the covenant it is legitimate. As Christians, however, our relation to the church, i.e., to one another and to our pastors, elders, and deacons is not a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. Cyprian and the other pastors were right and Novatian and his followers were wrong. Lapsing, grave sin though it be, was not the unforgivable sin. Jesus knew that Peter would lapse, which he did even before Jesus died. Our Lord obeyed and went to the cross anyway. He knew that Peter would deny him again by refusing to eat with Gentiles. Yet, our Lord Jesus forgave Peter and used him mightily. He did not exclude Peter from the church or from grace.

Grace means free forgiveness. There is some debate and uncertainty about just how to translate Matthew 18:22. Is it “seventy times seven” or “seventy-seven times”? Either way the point is that grace is extravagant. It is unexpected. It is supernatural. It is extraordinary. One can only imagine the heartache and shame felt by those who, with the point of an Islamic sword at their throat, have denied their Savior who carried their cross up Golgotha but if that same Savior forgives them, so do we. He also forgives our transgressions. In truth none of us know what we would do if it came down to it. We pray for the grace and courage to give witness when it comes time.

The visible, institutional church is not an instrument or a battle ground in the culture war. The weapons of its warfare are neither political nor martial. Be deeply disgusted by what is happening in the West and in this country in particular but not toward your brothers and sisters who reacted differently than you to the Covid regime. If the third-century church had to receive and restore the penitent lapsed, then how much more ought we to love and receive each other whatever our differences over Covid?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. The key word is penitent. Many in the church are not penitent over their decisions despite evidence to the contrary (that was available at the time, too). They see no problem with harming the conscience of their fellow believer and just claim it’s a church policy disagreement.

  2. Re: your mea culpa, the policy toward COVID changed under the new administration. I doubt that too many people felt that public health policy would change with an incoming President.

    Today we live in a country where the world’s best tennis player cannot compete at the U.S. Open, unvaccinated, while illegal aliens, suffering untold maladies, pour across the border. That is nuts.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Not to derail the conversation, but do you believe that because of the Constitution and its unique relationship to the citizens of our nation, we are obligated to rebel against authorities that break its provisions? I am asking in light of Scripture’s clear admonition to obey those in authority; however, obedience to individuals in authority is outweighed by obedience to the central civil authority, the United States Constitution, is it not? As a salient example, since the Second Amendment guarantees the right of ownership of firearms, would it dishonor God’s commandments to resist the decrees of authorities who unconstitutionally seek to infringe upon these rights?

    I am asking this in earnest and not in an attempt to troll. Thank you for your thoughts and for your message of grace in your post.

    • Hi Jason,

      This is a difficult question.

      The USA is a constitutional Republic and yet we also have what Calvin called lesser magistrates, chiefly the legislative bodies. So, my justification for the revolution is the Continental Congress. In this way the American Revolution was not the French Revolution (however much some want to make it the French Revolution) nor was it the Russian Revolution. The French and Russian revolutions are the very sorts of things that kept Calvin up at night.

      I’m not sure about “obligated to rebel.” I would rather say, “obligated to defend natural liberties against tyranny.” We are obligated to obey those in authority but the question is who are they? In a constitutional republic the executive branch is merely to be executing the laws passed by the legislative branch. Arguably the legislative branch are those in authority and all the branches are meant to upholding the principal law of the law, the constitution.

      In all the talk of “revolution” and “civil war” there are constitutional avenues for peaceful reform that are being ignored. What about a constitutional convention?

      Yes, the constitution is articulating and preserving natural liberties and the right to self to defense is one of those. Nevertheless, taking up arms in defense of liberty is not the first act of a patriot but the last. I see a lot of loose and careless talk from folk, I suspect, have no idea what defending liberty actually entails.

      Nevertheless, there may come a time when our natural liberties are neglected and thus usurped, as happened in Rome, and we find ourselves at the mercy of a tyrannical government. When Paul wrote Romans 13 Nero was Caesar and he was an abusive, evil, tyrant. Romans 13 is still God’s Word.

      We live in a twofold kingdom, with responsibilities in each sphere. Balancing them is not always easy nor is the path always clear. Good people may come to disagree about how to proceed. It will help if we distinguish between nature and grace/sacred and secular, and between the ultimate and the penultimate.

  4. Many saw through this from day one. I was an innocent and well intentioned Reformed Christian and young father who began to take a thorough interest in politics when the Benghazi scandal went down and our men were left to die. I came to quickly realize how disposable we all are in the eyes of the secular elite…

    Just the other day I watched a JFK documentary on Showtime that clearly demonstrates if they are willing to take out a sitting president….

    My baseline is they are lying until it’s proven otherwise. All of them. Trust your fellow man, the independent journalist, the cancelled physician with nothing to gain. They deserve more than an equal hearing in our day.

    • AJ,

      Beware of conspiracy theories. They are typically the lazy explanation for what happened.

      clearly, conspiracies do occur. That is why there is a category in the law that allows police and prosecutors to charge people with criminal conspiracies. There is a difference, however, between recognizing that sometimes people conspire and saying everything through the lens of conspiracy theories.

      In the case of the assassination of JFK, the most likely explanation is the one with the conspiracy theorists will not accept. History shows us, however, that sometimes weird things happen, the past is messy, people are inconsistent, people are lazy, sloppy, and, as a consequence, bizarre things take place.

      I am not saying that it is impossible for the assassination of JFK to have been a conspiracy but I am saying that none of the conspiracy theories that I have seen explain the evidence adequately.

      none of this is to say that you are wrong about the secular elites. Benghazi and the disaster that the Kabul airport both demonstrate the truth of your claim.

      It is especially bizarre, however, when reformed people take refuge in conspiracy theories since we of all people understand and confess that God disposes all things according to his good providence.

  5. Understood and agreed. I once took refuge. Probably a sinful, stubborn tendency to make sense of certain things. It just left me more perplexed. ….

    I try not to do that anymore. I just don’t follow the news much anymore. Maybe an occasional tweet from Old Life.

  6. So what do we do with those who went full-on Branch Covidian, who ostracized and penalized those who wouldn’t kiss the ring, but who even now refuse to admit they may have been mistaken?

    How are we supposed to deal with people who have never been willing to have an honest conversation about the consequences of Covid measures?

    Is it possible to be reconciled with such a one? Indeed, how is it possible to trust anyone who went along with all the lies, insisting that we all be willing accomplices in our own humiliation and the destruction of our livelihoods, and who still insists that it is the dissenters who need to repent?

    Or what about those who insist that dissenters apologize for their dissent as a precondition for any discussion about whether mistakes were made?

    • Hi Ryan,

      I think I’ve addressed this somewhere in the many pieces on Covid I’ve written.

      My thesis/case/argument is that the church is a covenant of works. Both sides (tragically, there are sides here splitting churches) need to forgive one another and learn to live with one another’s policy differences.

      You could set an example by refraining from inflammatory language like “Branch Covidian” and “kiss the ring.” I understand that you feel strongly about the way liberties were infringed under Covid (and still are in some places).

      Maybe we don’t need to have an “honest conversation” about Covid policy in the visible church? The church, as church, as an institution is not a policy think tank. It is an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christians can disagree about Covid policy and still love one another and forgive one another. This is the major burden of my essay: to remind us that the church is a minister of the covenant of grace. Those who are still hawkish on Covid and those who want to move on simply disagree. They need to learn to agree to disagree.

      If agreeing on Covid policy is a prerequisite for fellowship then what else is a condition? Agreement on monetary policy? International policy?

      This is one of the many reasons I’ve been advocating a distinction between the two spheres of God’s kingdom: the secular and the sacred. Covid policy belongs to the secular. The church is a minister of the sacred.

      Neither side should be seeking to extract an apology. Both sides should forgive, accept, and love one another.

    • I didn’t see the ability to reply directly to Dr. Clark – but I agree with the comment above from Ryan. Dr. Clark – you mention we have to agree to disagree – but what if our local church IS basing fellowship around Covid agreeance, in the sense of mandating masks, distancing, or other measures? How do you agree to disagree when you are essentially not allowed in fellowship without going along with one set of measures? My church functionally gathered around pragmatism, not Christ. How do I agree to disagree when I’m not allowed or welcomed into the churches worship because I disagree with fellowship?

  7. I respect your take. I think the Christian Reformed churches were first to lessen and/or abandon restrictions and may have even picked up a few new members here and there along the way. I think we will be wiser moving forward. I can’t argue how my local church leaders reacted. They were pretty balanced and accommodating. I kept quiet on my personal views and sanity ultimately prevailed sooner than later.

  8. Locally, some churches went beyond gov’t mandates, including segregation by medical procedure.

    The lack of discernment was impactful.

    Confidence in leadership has been damaged as media driven anxieties was evident.

    Perhaps some of these leaders will seek forgiveness.

  9. Another local church:

    The church followed the gov’t order to shut down for 2 weeks to “flatten the curve.”

    When that passed, they continued the live streamed and held in person services. The reformed pastor gave no announcements and didn’t address Covid. He didn’t mention masks, social distancing & mRNA vaccines. Week by week, he preached Christ and Him crucified with no mention of politics.

    Since then, they went from a only handful in attendance to near capacity at present.

    It’s been a joy to many.

  10. Good reminder, Dr. Clark.

    The Lord has used the disagreements over COVID (and masks, in particular) to bring me around to a better understanding and appreciation of what it means to follow Christ crucified, i.e., to suffer for the well-being of others, especially those whom we would label as ‘weak’ or even ‘misled’ brethren. This is something that, I believe, many of our churches had not practiced or discipled our people in enough prior to COVID. Now, we are experiencing the fruit of our unfaithfulness.

  11. I will make a good stab at being very uncharacteristically laconic…as I’ve discovered that verbosity yields no real dividends—
    Ryan Davidson—I share your view…for what that’s worth. Impenitence, or perhaps forgetfulness, is the order of the day. What you are wanting (I imagine) is for both leadership and congregants in the P&R world to live up to their exacting nature/reputation, and not fall prey to the antichrist, neo-pagan prevailing wisdom of the secularist culture. Disabuse yourself of this notion—particularly if you live anywhere in a “blue” State or worse, a large “blue” city metro area. Lastly, we should not agree with the premise that apologies are owed indiscriminately.
    It would have helped tremendously in this (and much else) if Americans had retained the ability to think axiomatically—particularly re: the tendency of government. Especially government as mediated by rogues, traitors, globalists, and neo-Marxist-Leninists of every conceivable caliber. If this is deemed inflammatory speech, I have written what I have written. The Founders warned those in the colonial era to no end. It cannot be helped that we living in a post-FDR, progressivist death cult have forgotten their admonitions.
    Prof. Clark suggests that it isn’t the calling of the visible church to involve itself in those matters pertaining to “the secular” (ex., Covid measures). Fair enough. Can this not be and has this not been a ministry of certain parachurch organizations for many years? Ex., Ligonier, L’Abri, the Trinity Foundation, etc., etc. Theonomists have Chalcedon and Covenant Media Foundation and others. I mentioned L’Abri…Schaeffer was doing this a long time ago. Sproul virtually duplicated this model with his Ligonier Valley Study Center. Even now, men like Calvin Beisner and Vern Poythress are equipping Reformed students and thinkers with the ability to engage the larger world of thought systems and typically secular concerns like the study of history or environmental concerns. I heard Poythress interviewed just the other day on Reformed Forum (w/Camden Bucey) about his new book on historiography. I also heard him to say a work on how to think “Christianly” about politics might be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. So, to the rhetorical categories of monetary policy or international relations, etc., this has been done and is in fact being done.
    Perhaps if P&R congregants would avail themselves of the wealth of materials out there by organizations that actually ARE doing “think tank” work, then it would not fall so much to teaching elders in the churches. There are also entities like the Acton Institute and Davenant Institute which are helpful. I personally enjoying reading the blogs of Gene Edward Veith and Craig Carter—as well as The Heidelblog itself—which strives to engage us with the larger world through an explicitly Reformed perspective.
    Prof. Clark brought up the idea of a constitutional convention: how ironic that he should, in that my significant other is a “District Captain” volunteer for the Convention of States Action—which proposes to invoke Article V of the Constitution to call for a convention of States in order to reign in the Fed. govt. I highly recommend any reader of this space to check them out and consider signing their petition. Better still, choose to volunteer and advance this agenda—if it resonates with you. I’ve had occasion to meet the CEO/President of the organization, Mr. Mark Meckler, and from what I can ascertain, both he and the organization are both legitimate and very worthwhile.
    Blessings and peace to all. Not particularly laconic, but I did try.

    • Greg,

      1. Your entire comment begs the question: it assumes what it must prove.

      2. The HB is no place for promotion of the error of theonomy and/or Christian Reconstruction

      3. BTW, as I just wrote to another commenter, what have the TheoRecons actually done? Very little. Rushdoony did good work paving the way for homeschooling. He gets credit for that but after that?

      4. Lots of Christians are faithfully engaging the culture. If you think I’m not then you’re not paying attention. There’s a difference between engaging and conquering. Please show me any place in the NT where any apostle set any agenda for “taking back Rome” or the Roman empire for Christ. Do you know how the early church won the empire? By martyrdom. Put that in the TheoRecon microwave.

      5. There’s a HUGE difference between saying that pastors in their office or churches as institutions should doing X and Christians as individual and groups should be doing X. Christ has not commissioned pastors, in their office, to be fighting the culture war nor has he commissioned the visible, institutional church to be fighting the culture war.

      6. If the TheoRecons really believed in the subversive power of the gospel, they’re teaching would be radically different. They don’t.

      7. The neo-Kuyperians have been talking about “transforming” politics or a Christian politics for a century now. What have to show for it? Have you ever been to GR? Amsterdam?

      8. The whole “transformational” model is denial of the historic Reformed distinction between nature and grace. It’s more Anabaptist than it is Genevan. You’ll forgive me for not wanting to go back to Anabaptism.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    You’ve mentioned to other posters that we need to agree to disagree over COVID and not base fellowship around agreeance on COVID policy. How would you advise believers do that when churches ARE setting policy that must be followed within the church and REQUIRED for fellowship? My church mandated masks, distancing, and limiting of fellowship. If I wanted to continue to be part of that church I would have had to violate my conscience or disrupt the unity of the church further by disobeyed the elders. It’s not as easy as a “let’s all get along” thing, and I think there really is a need for honest repentance for breaking the unity of fellowship on behalf of some church sessions.

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